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Christianity for the Rest of Us

The creators of the cartoon South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been all over the news
this week.  On the show’s 200th
episode, they sort of depicted the Prophet Muhammad thus attracting the
attention of a radical website called Revolutionmuslim (since taken down) that,
in return, sort of threatened to kill them. 

As pointed out by Hussein Rashid on Religion Dispatches, the media has reacted with dangerous ignorance and
predictable stereotypes–even beyond Bill O’Reilly on FOX news.  Throughout the commentary, including the more
traditionally moderate CNN that treated viewers to this comment: “No other religion
threatens violence over how they are portrayed in the media.” 

Since media depictions of Muhammad appear in the western
media, and incidents of violence regarding such depictions have been directed
toward secular or Christian writers and artists, one can detect a sort of
religious-moral superiority here. 
Western culture, with its Christian heritage isn’t roiled by such
theological narrowness.  After all,
who would get so worked up over religious pictures as to try to kill someone?

I can’t and won’t defend the Revolutionmuslim website.  But violence against those who depict the Divine is not just
an Islamic problem.  It is worth
pointing out that Christianity has a long history of violence against visual
depictions of Jesus, the saints, and God. 
In 1987, Serrano’s Piss Christ provoked
death threats and violence from Christian fundamentalists and conservative
Catholics across the U.S. and Europe and caused political outrage on two
continents.  In the 19th
century, American Catholics were regularly targeted by Protestant mobs for
“worshiping” statues while Protestant ministers lost their positions if they
placed visual depictions of the crucifixion, Mary, or the saints in their
churches.  Two hundred years before
that, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan army smashed religious artwork in English
parish churches.  During the 16th
century Protestant Reformation, followers of Luther and Calvin looted
cathedrals and convents carting off valuable paintings and statues to burn them
in public squares.   And so it
has been for most of Christian history. 
Indeed, as early as 600, Bishop Serenus of Marseilles destroyed all the
pictures in every church in his city worried that “images somehow cheapened the
sacred words of Scripture.”

The worst outbreak of violence against visual depictions of
Jesus occurred in the 700s.  In
726, Emperor Leo III outlawed the use of icons and ordered their
destruction.  Upon the decree, mass
rioting broke out across the Byzantine Empire demanding the return of visual
art to worship.  At the same time,
Islam had emerged as a rival religion to Christianity, with even stricter
prohibitions against images. 

Ironically, John of Damascus (655-750), the great Christian defender
of artistic depictions of God, lived in the Muslim city of Damascus where he
served as chief councilor to the Caliph. 
The Caliph, despite his own spiritual distaste for representative art,
protected John against several attempts by Christian partisans to have him
murdered.

John addressed the issue of art rather simply:  What is an image?  “An image is an likeness and
representation of someone containing in itself the person who is imaged.  The image is not wont to be an exact
reproduction of the original.  The
image is one thing, the person represented another.”   There is a distinction between the image and the
thing, thus depicting God or Jesus (or perhaps even Muhammad) should be
allowed, if reverently executed.

Although I doubt that John of Damascus would approve of South Park, he nevertheless opened the
way for Christian artists to explore the territory of depicting divine
things.  Not every believer has
approved of such artistic attempts to image God–and they have often objected by
resorting to violence against property and persons.  Christianity, like Islam, has a very mixed historical record
when it comes to the tension between “no graven images” and the freedom of
religious–or even the irreligious–imagination of the artist. 

Whatever the case, western commentators–especially those who
happen to be Christians–cannot claim any theological superiority regarding art
and God and should not think of this as a “Muslim thing.”  A little less outrage and a little more history might help.  As Jesus once said, “Let the one
without sin cast the first stone.” 

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